Commentary

Don Nelson's impact felt far and wide

NBA's winningest coach forged Hall of Fame career by being an innovator

Updated: April 2, 2012, 9:32 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

Now that Basketball Hall of Fame voters will grant entrance to the winningest coach in NBA history -- and maybe forevermore -- there is quite a good barstool debate to be had over Don Nelson's career.

No, it's not about whether he deserves a spot in the shrine after several snubs. His 1,335 career victories -- and a record that's 272 games above .500 -- achieved with four franchises over 31 seasons justifiably punched his ticket, with or without a ring.

[+] EnlargeDon Nelson
Dick Raphael/Getty ImagesDon Nelson had seven straight 50-win seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks and developed the wheeling-and-dealing style he's known for.

And no, the debate is not about when Nellie's vision of a point forward will have its own designation on the All-Star ballot.

In case you missed the news, Nelson will be announced Monday at the Final Four in New Orleans as a member of the 2012 class to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September.

The debate starts in Milwaukee in 1976, goes to Golden State in 1988 (and again in 2006) and lands in Dallas in 1997. The question is: Which stop was Nelson's most impressive turnaround job?

Fans in each locale have plenty of ammunition. After all, Nelson was never as antsy to jump as, say, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, whose 31 seasons on an ABA/NBA bench were spent with 10 franchises.

"We built teams into good ones, and I was in one place for a long time," Nelson said. "I had 11 years in Milwaukee, eight in Dallas and Golden State [11] years over two times."

Ask Nellie which stint was his best and he's not all that eager to choose just one. If he would, it might just be the least expected one -- his last. Taking over Golden State for the 2006-07 season after stepping down from the Mavs with 18 games to go in the 2004-05 season, the mad scientist engineered one of the great playoff upsets of all time, guiding his 42-win "band of schmoes" over the 67-win, top-seeded Mavs on the heels of their first trip to the NBA Finals.

Nellie believed that if he couldn't match up with you, he would make you match up with him.

-- Former Mavs coach and current
Nets coach Avery Johnson

"Nellie believed that if he couldn't match up with you, he would make you match up with him," said former Mavs coach and current Nets coach Avery Johnson, who learned that the hard way after altering his season-long starting lineup before that first-round series against the Warriors' smaller lineup.

But neither stop at beleaguered Golden State -- which included two 50-win seasons and three first-round losses in four playoff appearances over seven seasons (1988-95) in his first stint -- stacks up to achievements during longer stints at Milwaukee and Dallas.

Bucking the trend

At Milwaukee, a 36-year-old Nelson was promoted two months after being hired as an assistant in 1976, well after the Bucks' 1971 championship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the start of his career and Oscar Robertson at the end.

His acumen for wheeling and dealing, which would become Nelson's signature, quickly became apparent. The Bucks turned a draft pick from the trade of Swen Nater into Marques Johnson and swapped Kent Benson for Bob Lanier. Nelson helped build a diverse and dynamic team with Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief, among others. In 1980-81, Nelson's team averaged 113.1 points per game and won 60 games, but lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Philadelphia 76ers. It was the start of seven consecutive seasons of at least 50 wins -- sound familiar, Mavs fans? -- but also seven consecutive playoff defeats to either Julius Erving's 76ers or Larry Bird's Boston Celtics, and one time to each in the East finals.

Within that run, Nelson kept the roster fluid, unloading Johnson and Bridgeman and acquiring players like Ricky Pierce, Craig Hodges and Jack Sikma.

"He took calculated risks, would go against the grain of conventional wisdom in utilizing his personnel," Moncrief said. "He might post a guard, or he was one of the first to put a post guy outside to draw a big man to the perimeter to open up driving lanes. Flexibility is a word you can use."

Reviving the Mavs

Nelson's first radical trade after becoming the general manager of the Mavs -- arguably the worst sports franchise of the 1990s -- obviously has paid off big-time. He netted Dirk Nowitzki, a league MVP, a champion and a Finals MVP who currently sits 19th on the NBA's all-time scoring list and who is only 33.

[+] EnlargeDon Nelson and Dirk Nowitzki
Sam Forencich/Getty ImagesThe Mavs' fortunes changed forever when Don Nelson made the move on draft day in 1998 that landed Dirk Nowitzki.

"Isn't that awesome?" Nowitzki said of Nelson's Hall of Fame inclusion. "I texted him [Wednesday] night. I'm really excited for him. He's one of the best innovators of offensive basketball in the history of the game with all of his strategies. I owe him a lot because he threw me out there when there were probably better players on the team and he let me play a free game. He didn't limit me. He let me shoot 3s and play to my strengths, which not a lot of coaches would've done with a 7-footer."

When Mark Cuban purchased the Mavericks in January 2000, he wisely retained Nelson, who had already drafted Nowitzki and traded for Michael Finley. A trade to land Steve Nash brought Dallas a "Big Three," and after three seasons Dallas was battling San Antonio toe-to-toe in the 2003 West finals.

To get to that point also took some of Nelson's ingenuity -- perhaps overlooked ingenuity in this case.

"The key move that really ignited it and took it to another level was when Nellie and Cuban traded to get Raef LaFrentz, Nick Van Exel and myself from Denver," Johnson said. "That was a big trade because that move really helped to start what a lot of people are doing now, and that is playing two point guards together."

That trade occurred in February 2002. A season later, Dallas won 60 games with Nash often playing with Van Exel, and Finley sliding over from shooting guard to small forward. LaFrentz was an example of Moncrief's description of Nelson's flexibility, pushing a 7-footer to nontraditional places on the floor, like Nowitzki's early favored spot, the 3-point arc.

"That's really when the Mavericks joined the championship conversation," Johnson said. "That was 'Nellie Ball' at its best. Nellie Ball was also him making the third point guard and making him an assistant coach in the playoffs."

Had Nowitzki not sprained his knee in Game 3 against the Spurs, who knows whether Nelson might have gotten his championship that season? Nelson chose not to risk Nowitzki's future and wouldn't play him the rest of the way. Dallas fell in six games. The Spurs went on to sweep Jason Kidd's New Jersey Nets. It's a decision that has never sat entirely well with Cuban.

"It was probably the right thing to do at the time," Nowitzki said Thursday. "If it happened now, I'd probably play. He was just trying to protect me."

Those playoffs, as Johnson pointed out, were also when his grooming to become a coach formally began. And it wouldn't take long for Johnson to make the move to the head chair. The summer of 2004 signaled the end for Nelson in Dallas. Phoenix offered Nash big bucks, and when Cuban didn't match, Nash left. Nelson always said that Nash took a bit of his spirit with him.

With 18 games left in the 2004-05 season, Nelson stepped down, handing the reins to Johnson.

Despite a strained relationship with Cuban, Nelson -- whose son Donnie remains the franchise's longtime president of basketball operations -- has maintained close ties to the organization. He took great pride in Johnson leading the team to its first NBA Finals in 2006, and he beamed when Nowitzki brought home the franchise's first championship last season.

"I took a lot of pride in that," Nelson said. "Most of my players weren't there, but some were, with Dirk being the best."

It wasn't his championship. It won't be listed on his Hall of Fame credentials, but for Nelson it seemed to do just fine.

"Not having the best team, you're just not able to win in every round," said Nelson, whose mostly underdog teams went 75-91 in the playoffs. "I'm just happy with the career that I've had."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.

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